The Banality of Evil
-- a visit to KZ-Sachsenhausen
Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, all names permanently engraved in history...
but for most people "Sachsenhausen" draws a blank. These days, the
Houses of the Saxons is a sleepy suburb of Oranienburg, about one hour
north of Berlin. But during World War II, the village was home to
Konzentrationlager Sachsenhausen, one of the few vernichtungslager --
annihilation camps -- located on German soil.
An uncomfortable reminder of a past that most Germans would prefer to forget
I couldn't find a single
guidebook that even noted the existence of the camp, and Berlin City Info
certainly didn't know anything. I had originally been alerted to
its existence by one of Philip Greenspun's
excellent travel diaries, and after locating
KZ-Sachsenhausen on a map of Europe's concentration camps I could begin to
track my way to the site.
Lying at the edge of tariff zone C, Oranienburg is the terminus of the
S-Bahn line S1, and regional trains RE5 and RB12 also pass on their way along
the Nordbahn. The nearest station to the camp is, unsurprisingly,
Sachsenhausen (Nordb.), but the only train that stops there is the
hourly RB12. If you do get there, to get to the camp, take a right
from the station platform and turn right again onto the footpath,
following backward alongside the tracks. After about a kilometer
you will reach a road called Straße der Nationen (the crossing
has a death march memorial), turn left here
and walk for a few hundred meters to the camp.
The other (slightly longer) way is to walk directly from Oranienburg station.
Take the left exit, turn right and follow the scattered "Gedankstätte
Sachsenhausen" (memorial site) signs to the camp. To get from KZ
Sachsenhausen to Oranienburg, you can walk back on Straße der Nationen,
cross the street and keep going until you reach the tracks, then
turn left and follow them until Oranienburg station.
Despite the lack of advertising, the camp itself is quite nicely
presented with a number of excellent exhibits, especially the newer
post-DDR sections. Some of the older exhibits, however, are only in
German (and occasionally Russian!). Nearly all the buildings on the
site are authentic-looking reconstructions, many old building sites
are only marked by stones. Entrance is free, and pamphlets in a number
of languages explaining
most aspects of the site can be picked up for 50 pfennigs at the bookshop.
The construction of KZ-Sachsenhausen started in 1936 and it was officially
taken into use in
1938. Originally built with the barracks arranged in a half-circle
around the central tower, several expansions had to be hastily built
to accommodate the swelling population. Many inmates were forced to
do slave labor at the nearby Klinkerwerk brickworks, and there
were also profitable side lines of money counterfeiting and
ammunition manufacturing. While originally primarily a
detention and transit camp, SS policy being to perform mass executions
out of view in the East, in 1942 a small gas chamber and crematorium
were added to facilitate killing small groups. Overall, over 100,000
people were killed in KZ-Sachsenhausen, mostly through hunger, disease and
The main gate
Those found here will be shot
One of the watchtowers
As the Red Army approached in 1945, the prisoners were marched off
towards the North Sea in a death march that claimed over 6000 lives.
After the camp's capture (and inclusion in the DDR), the Soviets
immediately turned the tables
and interned suspected Nazi functionaries in what now became
Special Camp No. 7, killing another
12000 before the camp was closed in 1950.
Neglected for several decades afterward, in the 1960s the camp was
refitted by the Communists and opened as a museum commemorating
Anti-Fascistic Struggle, entirely neglecting all non-Communist
victims. Israel protested sufficiently loudly that a Jewish Museum was
soon opened on the grounds. After the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet-era
camp was rediscovered, documented and added to the exhibits.
Israel's prime minister Yitchak Rabin visited
in 1992; several weeks afterward the Jewish Barracks were hit in an
arson attack by neo-Nazis. At time of writing, construction of a new
building devoted to the Soviet camp as well as the reconstruction of the
gas chamber complex and the Klinkerwerk satellite camp (about 2 km NE
of Sachsenhausen) is under way.
The inmates of KZ-Sachsenhausen were a varied group. While a number of
Jews were interned, mostly before 1942, the bulk of the population
was political prisoners of various kinds, especially actual or
suspected Communists, many rounded up in mass actions with little if
any evidence against them. Other groups included "asocials" (artists, playwrights, etc), foreign nationals, homosexuals and Roma (Gypsies). In
accordance with standard KZ practice, all inmates -- including children --
were tattooed with their ID numbers.
Starving Gypsy kid
Camp inmates were detained in barracks. Unheated in the winter, stifling
in the summer, inmates were squeezed 3 together into a single 70-cm bed
and permitted several minutes per day for washing (two cold fountains
per 400 prisoners) and using the toilets. Regulations for camp life
were detailed and the tiniest violations brutally punished: SS guards
were known to suffocate prisoners to death by inserting their heads
into the foot washbasins or toilets. Another favourite punishment was
locking large groups of prisoners into the broom closets in the summer,
usually resulting in several deaths from heat exhaustion.
One of the barracks
As if merely being in a concentration camp weren't enough, for difficult cases
the camp included a special prison barracks with isolation cells
and interrogation (read: torture) facitilies. It was not unusual for
prisoners to spend months alone and blind shackled in tiny cells.
One of the prison's inmates was pastor Martin Niemöller, who
famouly remarked about not saying anything while they took away his
neighbors and nobody being left to say something when they came for him.
(Niemöller was later transferred to Dachau, where he died.)
Entrance to the prison
One of the isolation cells
Prison regulations extensively detailed permissible methods of torture;
quite a few of the exhibit texts seem to be more annoyed by the fact
that the guards occasionally exceeded the rules than by the fact that they
were using torture in the first place. Official favorites included
suspension from poles (resulting in bone dislocation and a slow, painful
death), beating with iron truncheons and whipping (not allowed on bare
buttocks until the regulations were amended in 1942).
Poles for suspending prisoners
Drawing by a prisoner
The other special barracks was the infirmary for the dead and dying.
Medical experiments, including vivisection (dissection of live victims),
were carried out in the operating room. Downstairs were facilities
for storing corpses.
A trail of blood
Cart for moving corpses
In 1942, the additional section known only as Station Z was
constructed. Designed for murdering people clinically and quickly,
Station Z consisted of a gas chamber, a firing range and a crematorium.
While small in comparison with the death factories of places like
Auschwitz, on several occasions up to 5000 people in a several days
were executed here.
Gas chamber drain
The ruins of Station Z
At time of writing, only the ruins of Station Z are left, and since the
ground underneath them is subsiding the area is roped off. A
reconstruction of the area is in the works.
The exact number of the Nazis' victims will never be known, as the
bodies were cremated and, on the approach of the Red Army, some 8 or
9 tons of human ashes were dumped into a nearby canal. The victims
of the death march, immediately before the liberation of the camp,
are better commemorated with memorial stones set up along the route.
The Soviets were less careful and left several mass graves in the
vicinity of the camp, which have been duly (and perhaps even
slightly disporportionately) marked.
Sign to mass graves
Bodies in a trench
Death march memorial